Where does the meaning of a piece of work live? When does its particular resonance take shape?
When a playwright puts words down on paper and submits them to be produced, is there something already inherent in those words that form the shape of the meaning? Or is the true shape of that meaning created by a director, whose particular eye and concept elevate the words from the page to the proscenium?
This is not, it turns out, just an esoteric conversation.
As we move into an age where ownership in other arenas becomes more and more fragmentary—where re-appropriation and remixing and re-envisioning are ever more frequently being both pursued and encouraged as reinforcement that works of art continue to be relevant—the theatre world seems, in some ways, stuck in an old argument. Who owns the rights to the art seems less the point, these days, than who has the right to play around with that art.
In an article yesterday in the New York Times, opera critic Anthony Tommasini, writing about the dual Ring Cycles of the San Francisco Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, opened with this line: “Every production of an opera is a commentary on the work. But how and to what extent a director should make such commentary is the question.”
I’ve been thinking about the imprint of the director for a week or so now, and reading these two sentences sparked a clarity for me because it showed me that, in opera, much of the ground has already been ceded. Great operas are already great, to put it overly simply, and so, like Shakespeare, they can by and large stand a little (or a lot) of artifice built on top of them. They have, in a sense, become playgrounds for auteurs, and that is, I think, why big names like Julie Taymor really get a kick out of directing operas—who, honestly, can mess up The Magic Flute, with such a strong backbone provided by Mozart, no matter how many giant bear kites and Masonic symbols and outlandish costumes you throw in?
But at what point does a work become either so strong or so irrelevant that drastic re-imagination is encouraged, and a strong director’s hand empowered? Is it really at that magical moment when copyright runs out?
Partly I’ve been thinking about this concept—of whether there’s a heart to a good play that consistently beats, or whether it’s all built up out of the paper by those who come after the playwright (or both)—because at AFTA this year, for the first time, I presented some very rudimentary aggregated numbers from the intrinsic impact work. In the week prior to AFTA, as I was frantically pulling together numbers, one graph that I created really startled me. You see, purely by chance (okay, almost purely by chance), we have as part of the study two theatre companies doing different productions of the same play. When I graphed the aggregated impact scores for those two productions side-by-side, this is what I saw:
With the one half-step exception in aesthetic growth, the results are, as the opposing counsel in My Cousin Vinny says while standing in front of the jury and pumping his hands, “Eeeeey-dentical!” On average, audiences for these two productions of the same play, one in California and one on the East Coast, were impacted identically intellectually, socially, empathetically, and in overall captivation. Which could either be absolutely awesome or could mean nothing.
This idea of where meaning is made comes from my colleague Rebecca Ratzkin, who works at WolfBrown and is very deeply involved in this intrinsic impact research—and it’s important I note (because she would kill me if I didn’t) that drawing any real conclusions from two productions, relatively few surveys, separated by a continent, without any other comparison, is nigh on impossible. But, if not conclusions here, I guess what I see is the possibility of something that I find absolutely fascinating: what if this play really does have its own peculiar heartbeat, and neither director nor star nor venue nor time nor city can alter that particular rhythm? What if, in essence, the impacts of the play are hardwired into it?
Noam Chomsky, a linguist and anarchist (okay, political theorist) now known more for the second appellation than the first, outlined a concept in the late 1960’s that he called universal grammar. He was investigating how languages are created and acquired, and he settled on this idea that all of us, from the moment we’re born, carry in us common, innate, fundamental rules of grammar, and we use that inherent understanding to gradually build up our language comprehension and production.
I often think of art in this way—as the manifestation of something fundamental and internal, built from blocks we all carry with us even if we don’t know it. And so, in a poetic sense, it seems not out of the realm of possibility that the first step in that manifestation in the theatre would be with the words on the page. By forming the lines, the playwright in a sense locks into essence just a bit of that ineffable something that we sometimes call empathy, or sixth sense, or maybe just love or joy or common pain.
This doesn’t, however, minimize the role of the director in that world, nor that of the designers or the actors or anyone else involved—including the audience. In the terms of intrinsic impact, I would say that the contributions of the others involved increase the imprint of the impact over time. They add levels and details, nooks and crannies of complexity and surprise, that make the print of the experience that is left on people more tenacious, more ingenious, more memorable. All of which has nothing whatsoever to do with copyright.
Which brings me to Little Shop of Horrors. I’ve deliberately avoided mentioning Little Shop until now, and don’t plan to spend too much time on the particulars of what has gone on at Boxcar Theatre here in San Francisco (feel free to read along here if you want to be caught up), and here’s why: I think that the particulars of the Boxcar situation dumb down what should be a nuanced discussion about the evolving role of one artist in a socially artistic enterprise (within the context of a society that is quickly changing its opinions about what is good, and respectful, and extraordinary, and so on). The truth of the matter is that, as much as Nick Olivero wants us all to focus on the (in many ways very legitimate and enticing) arguments about the value of the aggregated, manipulated, surgically enhanced work he did with his particular production of Little Shop, at the end of the day almost everyone I’ve spoken to or read comes back to a very simple, black-and-white conclusion: Dude shouldn’t have signed a contract he wasn’t going to abide by. And I agree. And so I’d ask that this conversation be taken in the context of something larger, or at least more legal—something like, say, the amazing multimedia production of Brief Encounter that toured the world last year, and that Jason Robert Brown referenced in his insightful comments on Olivero’s letter here. That show shows what can happen within the confines of legality that still empower remixing, reimagination, reinterpretation.
In my conversation with Rebecca Ratzkin, she directed me back to Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author, a book I remember being both dense and boring that I read only small parts of in college. She noted that conversations around ownership have in some ways advanced further (or at least been going on longer) in the visual arts world and music world, and she reminded me that Barthes’ essential argument was that once a piece is completed and handed out into the world, it is the world’s, and is given over to the manipulations and interpretations of those who chose to consume it. I think that visual arts and music scholars may have grappled with this more, in a way, because in both of those cases there is a possibility that more of the original work is left behind once the initial production is completed—which is to say, there’s still a painting, there’s still a recording, there’s still the possibility of sitting down in your living room on any day, at any time, and experiencing the fullness of that work again. In theatre we don’t so much have that—because all of the stuff that turns a play from a beautiful book of dialogue into a representation of life dissipates the minute it’s done, and we’re basically left to argue over (and buy rights to) the small, valuable, absolutely essential bit that’s left at the end.
I think of it sometimes as Pandora’s box, but without the ominous music. When the box was made, it was crafted carefully, artfully, in just these dimensions and with just this clasp and lock, and it was filled with this item and that item, all humming and waiting like Jacks in the Box to spring out when it was opened. And then it was opened, and they did, and it was extraordinary, and then someone put them all back, and they waited for the next time. Every time, the same pieces, placed back differently by different hands, arranged with care, but a different specific care, each time. The core remains, but it’s nothing without the hands that present it to the world.